Pentecost 3/proper 6A
It’s been quite a week in Christian news.
First, as soon as our former president was indicted, millions of believers rushed to defend him from the “witch hunt” he insisted it was.
Then the United Methodists saw hundreds of its churches, mostly in the south, dis-affiliate and leave to form a “purer” denomination purged of LGBTQ members and clergy.
And finally, the Southern Baptists voted to expel any congregation that has ordained and welcomed women pastors.
And just this weekend some Christian Republicans said that since “the poor we will always have with us” – free school lunches should be eliminated altogether – along with most other programs intended to assist the needy.
And that’s interesting, if disheartening.
It is profoundly tragic that the kingdom of God, which Jesus spoke about so often, has been rejected in favor of a religious kingdom of this world, beholden to those who wish to control the wild and wonderful freedom that Jesus actually proclaimed.
In each of the gospels it comes out slightly differently, but the good news is always and everywhere about proclaiming and bringing into earthly reality a new social order in which all creation is celebrated, in which no one is left out, in which the lame walk and the sick are made well, outsiders are welcomed, the poor are raised up and the rich put down into their proper place as servants – not overlords.
Look at today’s gospel.
The most fundamental calling for the church is to be – and to make – disciples of Jesus Christ. But what do we imagine that means?
Surely it is not about getting people to “accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior.”
That couldn’t possibly have been in the mind of Jesus or anyone who heard this preached, not even his closest friends, nobody.
Listen again: Jesus went about – teaching – proclaiming the good news of the kingdom – curing disease.
He was heartbroken because the people he encountered, God’s people, were being abused by those in power, ignored, left to fend for themselves: “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
So he said to his followers: “The harvest is plentiful – but the laborers are few”…“Ask the Lord of the harvest to send our laborers into his harvest.“
And what do you think he meant by that?
Well, look and see –
“Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority” – to do WHAT HE HAD BEEN DOING!
Biblically-speaking, people are disciples when they are followers: imitators, learners, apprentices, students of the master.
And what they are learning to do is whatever the master does.
And what Jesus did was to shake up the approved social/religious/political order.
Jesus was, and remained a Jew, and a Jew in the tradition of all the prophets who continually urged the people who had pledged their obedience to God, to become who they were. And that meant they were charged to relieve the orphan and the widow, to give food to the hungry, to welcome the foreigner and the immigrant, to remind the rich that they are responsible for the poor, to lift up the lowly and to do justice.
Jesus’ passion was to bring Israel back to its senses: to bring his people back into a vision of the kingdom of God which Israel was invited to proclaim to the whole world.
And that kingdom is nothing like the kingdoms of this world.
And so Jesus told them not to go to the outsiders – but to the “lost sheep if the house of Israel.”
God is the good shepherd of Israel, as you remember from today’s psalm and from Psalm 23. But God’s people were wandering about as if they had no shepherd at all – because their leaders had forgotten who they were.
The authorities, both religious and political, had become “false shepherds,” causing the people pain, laying on them burdens no one is supposed to bear, adding to their suffering, doing the opposite of what a good shepherd does.
So Jesus sent his followers out to proclaim that God’s kingdom really was near – already at the door – and that it is visible when the sick are made well, the broken are healed, the lost and weary are found and brought home, the poor are lifted up into places of dignity.
And so he sent them out with power and authority to proclaim it to the leaders of the synagogues and to everyone else.
A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, once said that the church, the gathering of Jesus’ followers, “always exists for its non-members.” Listen to that again.
The Church is not primarily supposed to be a fellowship of like-minded people who enjoy each other’s company, although that happens too! And rabble-rousers and freedom-bringers do need each other for sure.
But the church really exists only to shake up this world – to make it freer, gladder, more inclusive, more welcoming, more like God as God revealed himself in Jesus: to rescue and redeem it from sadness and sorrow and the captivity of sin.
And so the deal is to be a disciple, to be one of those rabble-rousers, one of those heart-healers, those welcomers, one of those joy-bringers, one who isn’t afraid to speak truth to power – and one who is eager to “make” other disciples. Why?
So that more and more people will follow Jesus and do the same things until the kingdom of God, which we pray for every week, really does finally “come on earth as it already is in heaven.”
But see what that actually means.
Jesus does not lead his friend to expect that their proclamation and their acts of freedom-making will go over well.
It didn’t for the prophets.
It didn’t for Jesus.
The world, religious as well as secular, isn’t interested in anything so wonderful – so radical. So egalitarian.
That was clear from this week’s news.
Jesus warned them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves.”
They will hand you over to councils and synagogues, or to the modern equivalent of them.
They will drag you before governors and kings, or wanna-be presidents and school boards and before Congress and the courts.
It will happen. But when it does – don’t worry about what you will say. God will give you words. So there it is. It’s not a flower-strewn path. But it is Jesus’. And we have power to walk it.
Now it is entirely possible, as we have seen this week, to turn Jesus’ words on their heads and to decide that some rigid orthodoxy, unhappy and cold as it is, rather than the wild and wonderful freedom Jesus brings, IS the real gospel.
And that has predictable consequences.
People rebel. They feel a theological and psychological noose tighten around their necks. They stand up and shout “NO MORE! We don’t want to hear it! We’re out of here.”
And they leave.
And then those angry defenders of a too-narrow gospel claim that THEY are the persecuted disciples.
We heard that, too, this week.
Here’s the privilege and the call we have been given, if we want it:
Just follow Jesus anyway.
Just follow Jesus in the way, which is the truth, which brings life, and joy and freedom for the entire creation – the entire creation.
Just do it.
We don’t need to defend ourselves as being too “liberal” or too “soft on sin” or too political or too whatever.
We don’t need to try to out-argue those voices.
Just don’t do it.
Instead, seek first the kingdom of God.
Seek it and proclaim it, pray for it, do what you can, and vote for anybody who wants to expand care for our creation, clean water, safe air, wholeness and care for the poor, welcome for the stranger and immigrant, justice, equality and diversity and inclusion of all people, healing for the sick, restoration for those who have fallen.
And do not worry about what happens next.